Ma's Army

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Our nation, Mao once wrote, is wanting in strength. For the man who proved his mettle by swimming the turbulent Yangtze, developing China's muscle had two functions: it toughened the sinews of the socialist struggle, and it proved that Eastern bodies could compete with bulkier Western ones. No one exemplified that athletic ambition better than track coach Ma Junren, whose peasant-stock squad catapulted into the record books in 1993. Dubbed Ma's Army, the red-cheeked sorority from northeastern Liaoning province captured six medals out of a possible nine that year at the world championships in Stuttgart. Less than a month later in Beijing, Ma's star runner Wang Junxia sheared 41.9 seconds off the previous record in the 10,000 m endurance race, even though she had ranked just 56th in the world a year earlier. The ex-People's Liberation Army platoon leader quickly hyped his recipe for success: rigorous training at the Technical Institute of Physical Culture in Shenyang, plus a swig or two of his turtle's blood tonic. Skeptics sniped that the team's triumph might have been because the reptilian concoction was spiked with a more potent substance: steroids. Coach Ma, now 53, denies the charges. Still, drugs have dogged other Chinese athletes, most notably its musclebound swimmers, seven of whom were busted for steroids at the 1994 Asian Games. Drug charges have turned out to be the least of Ma's problems. His initial eponymous army mutinied several years ago, when Wang and others griped about the grueling marathon-a-day workouts at high-altitude training camps. Ma's list of prohibitions was even more exhaustive: no makeup, no boyfriends, no eggs other than those with reddish-brown shells. The State Sports General Administration--not known for its soft training approach--reportedly cautioned Ma to abandon another of Mao's sayings: Exercise should be savage and rude. In a final insult, Beijing barred Ma's newest crop of runners from entering last year's Asian Games. Still, the chain-smoking coach has shown he can change with the times. Tapping into the nation's medicinal craze, Ma peddled the formula for his turtle's blood tonic to a pharmaceutical firm for $1.2 million. That capitalist turn might have disillusioned Mao, but it befits the market-oriented legacy of his successor Deng Xiaoping.